There was an internet rumor saying that the mysterious special guest at Fleet Foxes’ intimate show at the Belasco on Wednesday night would be Joanna Newsom. Everyone was waiting with a lot of anticipation inside the packed theater, and I overheard a woman in the crowd saying: “I drove 5 hours to be here, and if it’s not Joanna, I am going to be pissed off! I don’t even care much for Fleet Foxes!” She never got pissed off, but rather delighted since the rumor turned out to be true.
Before the show started, Robin Pecknold came on stage to make a few announcements and he was so happy to be there that he couldn’t contain himself from revealing right away all the surprises of the show: the special guests (his dad, Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, and of course Joanna Newsom) as well as the upcoming concerts with my Morning Jacket in August, at the Greek in Berkeley and at the Bowl Hollywood. Wouldn’t it have been better to leave a bit of mystery?
At the possibility to see the elusive high priestess of acoustic music, prices for tickets for the sold-out show on the reseller market went to the roof, and the room went crazy when she finally came on stage. She looked as radiant as I remember, with her fairy tale princess aura, wearing a beautiful dress, her hair tight in a high ponytail, with her delicate fingers running on the strings of her giant harp. Not only she had not performed for three years, but she also treated her audience with five new songs, mostly played on the piano, behind which she almost disappeared.
Joanna Newsom’s music is truly unique, and her eccentricity is probably a large part of her appeal. It’s difficult to be original in this business and her vision is totally hers. She performed for a full hour but only did 7 songs and this says a lot about her meandering style. Besides the delicate harp chords, her voice was the main attraction, or rather her main instrument. It took different incarnations during the same song, soft or insanely high, profound and rich, vibrating like a cello chord, sometimes sounding like Bjork, sometimes sounding like Kate Bush, sometimes sounding like a cartoon voice on helium. I honestly can’t figure out how she can play these 10-minute-long songs that follow a complex and winding sonic road with an infinite number of twists and detours, but she does it perfectly. Her lyrics are another eccentricity from the indie music world, as each one of her songs is a 4-page novel free of any repetition, and each one of her lines is an occasion for her fans to keep looking for buried artsy references for months. Fleet Foxes’ horn section came for a song (“Marie at the Mill”) and during “Little Hand,” her voice made a few strange ringing tones as if she had suddenly switched to another instrument, although she was still sitting behind her piano. Her voice was mimicking a breathless runner at the end of “The Air Again,” and she went back to the harp for the crystalline vibe of “No Wonder” and “Sawdust & Diamonds,” a song from “Ys.”
She is definitively an acquired taste, I cannot say I would not drive five hours to see her, but I live in LA and I am spoiled with live music. I would say her work is more of an intellectual curiosity and something I admire for its ambition rather than always actively enjoying. However, the room was filled with people who were drinking every note of her serpentine and fluid songs. Newsom hasn’t released an album since her 2015 album, “Divers,” and she is someone who definitively takes all her time to release her peculiar music, So the fact she performed these new songs doesn’t mean an album release is imminent.
Bombs Are Whistling (Live premiere)
Marie at the Mill (Live premiere)
Little Hand (Live premiere)
The Air Again (Live premiere)
No Wonder (Live premiere)
Sawdust & Diamonds
After Joanna Newsom’s solo act, Fleet Foxes were all about layered and heartfelt vocal harmonies and big orchestration with an uplifting horn section. They must have been nine or ten on stage (Skyler Skjelset, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, Morgan Henderson, drummer Christopher Icasiano, Riley Mulherkar, Chloe Rowlands, and Willem de Koch… and I may have forgotten someone…) and the vegetation and flowers on stage or hanging from the ceiling reinforced the band’s strong connection with nature. The beautifully ornated historic Belasco was certainly a perfect setting for their spring-like music with this undeniable church vibe. Fleet Foxes’ music evokes hymn-like songs for the change of season – Robin called the night a spring recital – a feel-good vibe that makes an entire room sing along with both arms in the air. The band’s self-titled debut still occupied a big part of the set, and songs like “Ragged Wood” or “Your Protector” received obviously a joyous reaction from the crowd. All the songs floated over us like a light ray of sunshine with a triumphant tone despite some heavy topics – “Sunblind” is a song exclusively about musicians who tragically died too young.
You cannot deny the musicianship of the entire band, the complex vocal harmonies often reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Robin Pecknold’s clear and detailed vocals above the gentle wall of sound they create with precision, and the calculated chaos they can bring at times during the loudest moments of the show.
“We haven’t played this song in 8 years,” Pecknold said before performing the atmospheric harmony-saturated “Bedouin Dress,” just before “White Winter Hymnal,” a “Christmas song or whatever,” which is invariably loved because of its vibrant harmonies and dynamic textures. Even though I was not familiar with their entire catalog, many songs sounded familiar, and their ebullient soundscapes belonged in my sonic territories.
There were also a few covers, like the poppy “Phoenix,” a song by the duo of the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, co-written and co-produced by Pecknold himself and, after a stripped down “I’m Not My Season” played by Robin alone on stage, he welcomed his dad on stage as well as Daniel Rossen to play Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” as he had announced at the beginning of the show. It was a nice and personal touch making an already show even more special – I saw many large cameras around which let me think all this was filmed for posterity.
“Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman,” of their last album “Shore,” was premiered on stage in all its buoyance, followed by the jazzy triumphant “Maestranza,” and, at this moment, Robin revealed that the band was about to record new songs. After the more melancholic “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Grown Ocean,” the band couldn’t leave without playing the titled track of the same album, “Helplessness Blues.” For everyone’s great joy, they played the anthemic tune during the encore after another earthy theme song “Going-to-the-Sun Road.” The night ended with a last surprise: Joanna came back on stage for an exquisite rendition of Fleet Foxes’ “Blue Spotted Tail” with the addition of Joanna’s intricate vocals. They ended this very long show (24 songs) with a composition by Joanna, “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which turned out to be the best gift that Pecknold could have offered to the already very happy audience. Robin and Joanna’s voices blended in a very pleasant way, and the two hugged each other like two old friends. Despite Fleet Foxes’ near-to-perfection execution, Joanna definitively stole the song, stole the show, and probably the entire night.
Sun Giant (First time played since 2009)
Wading in Waist‐high Water
Can I Believe You
He Doesn’t Know Why
Third of May/Ōdaigahara
Phoenix (Big Red Machine cover)
White Winter Hymnal
I’m Not My Season
Hejira (Joni Mitchell cover)
Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman (Live debut)
Maestranza (Full band debut)
Blue Ridge Mountains
Blue Spotted Tail (with Joanna Newsom)
Good Intentions Paving Company (Joanna Newsom cover with Joanna Newsom)
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